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Where once hundreds of thousands of Marquesans populated their islands, located about 750 miles northeast of Tahiti, today there are fewer than 10,000 and reportedly none of pure blood. Still, the Marquesas islands and people are rich in their Polynesian culture and heritage.

The Marquesas Islands — Nuku Hiva, 'Ua Pou, 'Ua Huka, Hiva Oa, Tahuata, Motane, Fatuiva and several smaller motu or islands — are an archipelagic division of French Polynesia, which is an overseas territory of France.

The 2002 television show, Survivor 4, probably introduced the Marquesas, especially Nuku Hiva, to more people around the world than would otherwise have ever come to know something about these islands. That show, of course, did not focus on the the Polynesian people of the Marquesas or their rich heritage that you will enjoy at the Polynesian Cultural Center.


The Marquesas archipelago is located about 750 miles northeast of Tahiti toward the eastern edge of the Polynesian Triangle. The islands are still somewhat remote in that only two of them have air strips. Large, heavy items must be shipped by boat from Tahiti.


The Marquesas are high-rise volcanic islands, with jagged peaks reaching over 4,000 feet and razor-edge ridges above deep-cut valleys that descend along mountain streams to the sea. Like some of the other high-rise islands of Polynesia, most Marquesan islands drop straight into the sea, with no surrounding fringe reefs. Consequently, the number of good anchorages is limited, forcing materials to be offloaded onto lighters or even "swam ashore." Narrow black sand beaches usually form at the mouths of the streams.


Estimates of the historical population of the Marquesas vary from 100,000 to 300,000, but the population today is less than 10,000 people, with few or no full-blooded Marquesans left. The drastic drop in population is usually credited to intertribal warfare, epidemics of western diseases, indentured labor practices during the 19th century and, more recently, out-migration to Tahiti.

European discovery and history:

The Spaniard Alvaro de Mendaña was the first known European to make contact with Polynesians: In 1595 Mendaña was sailing from Peru to the Philippines when he encountered the islands and named them Las Islas Marquesas after his patron, the viceroy of Peru.

The famous British explorer Capt. James Cook came in 1774 and wrote in his journal that the Marquesans were "the finest race ever beheld…tall and well proportioned." More frequent contact didn't occur, however, until whaling ships started calling at the Marquesas in the early 19th century. For example, the American author, Herman Melville, published his first book, Typee, in 1846 based on his earlier experiences in Nuku Hiva.

In 1842 France took possession of the island group, which has remained under French rule until the present. Sometimes the islands are called by their French name, Les Marquises. During the mid-1800s, quite a few Marquesans were carried off to South America as indentured laborers. None are known to have returned.

By the time French painter Paul Gauguin went to the Marquesas in 1901 there were as few as 1,500 Marquesans left. Gauguin spent his last two years living among them and painting in their remote islands. He is buried on Hiva Oa.

Because of their relative isolation, the Marquesas have basically languished for the past century, with little growth or economic development, although the population has rebounded somewhat.


Marquesan, French and Tahitian. Marquesan is a major Polynesian language similar to Hawaiian, Tahitian and Samoan. Indeed, some anthropologists and oral traditions suggest the Marquesans may have first come to their islands from Samoa over 2000 years ago. Still, all languages change over time and generations.

When linguists start to compare certain similar Polynesian words, patterns begin to emerge which suggest how these languages differ from one another. For instance, the Marquesan word for 'house' is ha'e, the Hawaiian word for 'house' is hale, and the Samoan word is fale. After verifying such a pattern with many more examples, linguists might conclude that where Marquesan and Hawaiian speakers use an 'h' sound, Samoans use an 'f' sound; and where Samoans and Hawaiians use an 'l' sound, Marquesans use a glottal stop sound represented by the inverted apostrophe.

The Tohua:

The development of tohua, which is basically a plaza which could accommodate special village activities, is both unique to the Marquesas and represents the most sophisticated architectural complex in all of Polynesia. The open area in the middle of the tohua is similar in significance to the Maori marae and the Tongan and Samoan malae.

One tradition says Marquesan chiefs built tohua to commemorate the birth of a first son, or the death of a chief or priest. The tohua became the chief's hereditary property and part of his family's residential complex; so, in a sense, the tohua was the chief's compound to which he would invite guests, visitors, and sometimes the entire village for special events, dancing and feasting.

Marquesans used available rocks and earth fill to raise portions of the tohua where additional structures were built. Basalt boulders of volcanic origin were commonly used to build tohua in the Marquesas; but the fossilized sandstone used to create the Polynesian Cultural Center tohua is the locally available alternative. The structures in the tohua include the:

Hakaiki: The height of the paepae foundation as well as the extensive decorations easily identify the "chief's residence" in the tohua. Here the chief would counsel his people and entertain guests. The house also served as a place of refuge for strangers and those fleeing punishment.

Because the tohua was built under the chief's sponsorship, it was usually named after him or his son. The large compound in front of the house was frequently paved from one end to another to accommodate traditional dancing, which was very popular. The valleys would echo with the rhythms of drums, clapping of hands, chanting voices, cheers of celebration after a war victory, or cries of mourners as activities were conducted, including the pageantry of chiefly ceremonies, funerals, puberty rites and deification of great chiefs. Warriors would strut around showing off their full tattoos and food for feasting would litter the platforms.

Ha'e Ko'o'ua: The "old men's house" provided a shelter for those men who no longer slept with women, and thus were considered taboo. Marquesans respected and highly regarded old people for their knowledge of the details of tribal lore.

Among themselves, the aged ones could dream of past braveries in intertribal wars, of feasts of plenty and droughts of starvation, or carry on certain home industries such as making ornaments, weapons, popoi pounders and wooden bowls. Rest and kava drinking were their special right. These pastimes were interspersed with dialogues of the past and cultural discussions with those who visited them. An unusual contribution of the old men was their white hair or whiskers which were used to decorate costumes, weapons, chiefly staffs, ornamental bracelets, neckpieces and anklets.

The old men were known as tupuna or grandparents, while their grandchildren were called moupuna. A child had to call all his father's peers motua or father. Grandparents, not fathers, had the job of announcing the birth of a child and supplying such information as whether it would be adopted or not, what its name would be and other privileges.

This structure also served as a taboo house in which food for persons under certain restrictions was cooked and stored.

Ha'e Patu Tiki: The "tattooing house" was usually a temporary structure raised for the tattooing of the first-born adolescent males between the ages of 15-20. It normally was not included in the tohua. Only specialists did tattooing. During the ordeal, the boys lived in the ha'e patu tiki and were fed by members of their respective households. The house was declared taboo and access to all women was denied. Nearby, drummers beat soothing rhythms to ease the pain of tattooing which progressed every day until it was completed.

Traditional Marquesan tattoo designs covered the whole body of the males. These included lines, triangles, spirals, feather and leaf patterns, circles, crisscrosses, tiki faces, scallops, checkerboards, geometric designs, and petroglyph-like figures. Each tattoo was unique to each individual.

Marquesan tattoos were intricately and skillfully engraved into the skin using a bone needle tipped with indelible plant dyes. Tattoo artists were highly paid in pigs, breadfruit and other produce.

Me'ae: The tohua includes a "religious shrine" or temple whose high roof signifies the importance of the building. Kou fau or wild hibiscus stakes with tapa cloth streamers indicated the area was taboo. Here the skulls of dead ancestors and other sacred objects such as the wooden or stone images were stored. The me'ae were always taboo to women. The carved posts, which were sculptured for decorative effect, could be found throughout the Marquesas, with similar designs carved on weapons, household objects and food bowls.

Sometimes Marquesans erected their me'ae in the hills where private worship would prevail. Where the sacred place was of lesser significance, minor sacrifices and rites were conducted and all were allowed to participate with no taboos attached.

Ha'e Manihi'i: The chief provided a "guest house," as there were many community activities in which visitors were invited to participate. Marquesan and other Polynesian customs also provided protection and entertainment to any traveler or guest who might seek shelter and hospitality at the tohua; hence the Marquesan saying: Mea tapu te manahi'i, ua tapapa te haka iki, which means, "Protected is the guest the chief entertains."

The high roof of the ha'e manihi'i promoted ventilation and was also as a storage area. The pole running along the side of the wall was used as a head rest. Little pulleys of coconut husk sennit cords were used to put valued items out of reach. Coconut shell protectors were utilized to shield them from rats. The visitors' house and platform also served as a spectator's platform for the chief's house.

Ha'e Vehine: Women and children were allowed to watch the proceedings in the tohua from the "women's house." Though most of the remaining areas of the tohua were taboo to them, the women were careful to confine themselves to this special dwelling. Here they could talk among themselves, make baskets, braid mats, decorate tapa and prepare cosmetics and food. When exhausted from the day's activities, they would lie here on mats spread over the sandy floor and sleep.

Kitchen area: The Marquesans offer daily samples of staple foods from their kitchen area, including breadfruit in season, or otherwise boiled green bananas. These were traditionally eaten with pork, chicken or fish.

Every Marquesan child from the moment of birth inherited a least one breadfruit tree as his very own. At about 10 years of age, every child's hands were consecrated so he could make popoi, or pounded breadfruit paste.

In years when there was adequate rainfall, Marquesans could harvest four cycles of breadfruit or ma, which was either baked or boiled. In other years, when the chief saw the breadfruit was mature but may not sufficiently ripen, he would summon his workers with the blast of the conch shell or he would send one of his priests. The people picked the breadfruit with nets attached to long poles.

They knocked off the breadfruit stems, pierced them with a small guava stick or piece of bamboo from end to end, and carefully placed these into food storage pits as provisions against time of famine.The piercing hastened the ripening, which usually took another one or two days. When the fruit was tender, the women peeled them and lay them on a bed of fau or wild hibiscus leaves, with a cover of more leaves on top, to help ripen them even further.

The next day they would squeeze the breadfruit flesh off their cores, which were discarded. They called this breadfruit flesh mei, which was left to drain in a temporary hole lined with plaited coconut leaves and banana leaves. After the mei started to ferment, they transferred it to a permanent storage pit, and at this point, called it ma. The Marquesans and other Pacific islanders had discovered that ma could be kept in covered, leaf-lined pits indefinitely; and even though westerners might consider the pungent famine food overpowering, some Marquesans claim it even improves with age.

When finally taken from the storage pit, ma is never eaten but forms the base for popoi — which is virtually identical to Hawaiian poi, except for the aged breadfruit base: In other words, Marquesans would place ma on a wooden trough to be kneaded with a stone pounder, and add water as needed to achieve the consistency of soft dough. At that point, they tightly wrapped the popoi in smaller packages using fau or wild hibiscus leaves, and bound them with strips of bark. These packages were then baked in underground ovens to be served with fish, pork and other Marquesan staples.

Traditional medicine:

Traditional Marquesan as well as other Polynesian medical practices dealt not only with medical plants and their uses but was also concerned with what happened to the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual welfare of the people. Traditional healing practices helped cure both life’s everyday ailments as well as repaired common injuries. Indeed, when Europeans first came into contact with Polynesians, the islanders had never previously been exposed to diseases such as measles, influenza and syphilis, which later decimated whole populations.

In ancient times, most Polynesians believed supernatural forces caused illnesses. If a person got sick, he might conclude a spirit was displeased with his or one of his relative’s behavior. Or perhaps he was suffering from a hidden guilt or secret wrongdoing. He might even suspect another individual of hexing him with sorcery. He and the traditional healer might also decide he broke a taboo, ate unwholesome food, and had an excess of emotional or sexual passion.

When a sick person went to a healer, the patient would review his recent actions to try to determine what might have given offense. The patient would describe any symptoms to the healer, who would perform or direct proper corrective measures. This could have included a special diet to once again bring about a state of balance in the individual.

Historically, Polynesians did not consider biological agents such as bacteria and viruses as the causes of disease. A Polynesian always tried to discover the nature of the offense which caused the illness. So-called "incurable" diseases that resulted in death were believed to be under the control of the gods, and whether a patient recovered or died was according to the superior will and desires of the gods.

Most Polynesian societies had special healers who were usually associated with the priestly class. It was up to an individual to recognize his own talent and offer himself to be a healer. Some healers were taught in groups in special classes, while others learned on a one-to-one basis. The power of healing was considered reward enough in itself and so most healers were not paid but instead "gifted" with presents of gratitude and status such as food, household furniture, or clothing.

Massage involving parts or the whole body or parts of the body was one of the most commonly used medical treatments throughout Polynesia. Massage specialists would use one finger, several fingers, the finger or fingers plus the thumb, the hand or hand, and even elbows and the ball of the foot to eliminate illnesses. Massages also took the form of squeezing, stroking, pushing with the palm of the hands, stroking with rotating and sliding motions of the fingers, kneading, gentle touching, pounding and walking up and down the patient’s back. This would be done in conjunction with other "green medicine" therapies.

Massage was used to cure headaches, muscular pains, body toning after childbirth, correction of a clubfoot and other malformations, abdominal massage during pregnancy, and healing sprains. Surgery, on the other hand, was usually limited to lancing boils and infections.

All Polynesians had a healthy appreciation for bathing, whether in fresh water or the sea. They washed themselves frequently, using certain leaves which lathered like soap, rubbed sand in their hair to clean the scalp, removed grime from their skins with oil, and used wadded fibers from coconut husks and other plants to scrub their bodies.

Healers throughout Polynesian also extensively used plant medicines in the form of potions and applications. Most commonly, they would prepare these medicines from selected plants by pounding the material in a wooden bowl and straining the juice. Sometimes the juice would be sweetened with sugar cane sap, and drunk with water, inhaled or applied to an injury.

Some of the more interesting Polynesian cures included the following:

  • Polynesians used smooth stones and shells to assist massages to relieve stress, tension, aches, run-down-ness, muscle strains, and general unwellness.
  • In Tahiti soft mud was smeared over scalds and superficial burns and allowed to dry in place to relieve pain and infection.
  • The Maori rubbed urine into goiter swellings to reduce them. Samoans applied it to eliminate sties in the eye.
  • Fijians would urinate on bee and jellyfish stings to stop the pain and itching.
  • Kava was crushed and drunk to relieve headaches, tension and sleeplessness. A kava poultice was also used in Hawaii to stop a toothache.
  • Fijians and Hawaiians would clean, pound and mix turmeric root with hot water, which was then strained and squeezed to produce a juice that was administered to relieve diabetes and coughs.
  • The cut end of the stem between a taro corm and leaf was rubbed onto insect bites to reduce itching, pain and swelling.
  • Raw kukui or candlenuts were eaten as a laxative in Hawaii. In Tonga women scraped the bark of the tree to derive sap which they applied to the tongue and mouth of children to treat thrush.
  • Fresh green ti leaves were directly applied to the forehead to cool the brow and relieve headaches.
  • The juice of the moist husk of green coconuts was squeezed and administered to newborn babies to clear their systems of "womb" food.
  • Coconut oil scented with fragrant leaves and flowers, was used in massaging for aches, pains, injuries, vitality, and beauty.
  • The people of Rapa Nui or Easter Island, used sweet potatoes to quench their thirst. Hawaiian women used sweet potato vines as a necklace to ensure an abundant flow of breast milk.
  • In Tahiti and Samoa breast milk was applied to the eyes to rid it of mucous infection.
  • An ordinary stick was used to beat across puncture wounds or poisonous bites to induce bleeding, which was believed to cleanse the wounds.
  • Polynesians bound wounds and injuries with plain white tapa cloth made from the bark of the paper mulberry.
  • Medicinal strainers were made from the natural fibers of coconut trees.
  • Natural pumice stones were used to remove callouses.
  • Mashed candlebush (which has yellow flowers that look like candles) leaves are still used today to eliminate ringworm and other skin rashes.
  • Laua’e fern roots were boiled and the mixture cooled and used to bathe babies to cool fevers.
  • Mortars and pestles made from rock were utilized to pound and grind medicines.
  • And, of course, throughout Polynesia islanders used the juice of the noni for its curative powers.
Interesting Factoid:

The people and colors of the Marquesas inspired well-known French artist, Paul Gauguin, who lived and died there. He is buried in the remote Marquesan island of Hiva Oa, where some of his descendants still live.

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